Do you ever stop to think about what makes the screen of your phone respond to your touch? It’s something we all take for granted, but it wouldn’t be possible without a rare metal called Indium. It’s used in a compound called Indium tin oxide (ITO), which conducts electricity and is transparent – so it’s perfect for touch screens.
Indium is also used in solar panels, so we’re going to need a lot of it as we increasingly turn to green energy sources. It’s hard to obtain, as one kilo of ore gives you just a few milligrams of Indium, and only about 1000 tones are produced every year.
It’s not the only rare element in our smartphones. Others include Tantalum, Gallium, and Yttrium, named after the village of Ytterby in Sweden where it was first discovered. Scientists estimate that Indium and Tantalum mines, among others, could run out within a century. And all these elements have other uses in things which we also depend on. So, we need Tantalum for surgical implants, hearing aids and pacemakers, as well as turbine blades, rocket nozzles and nose caps for supersonic aircraft. Meanwhile, Yttrium is used in microwaves and to give the red colour to pictures on your TV screen.
Of the 75 elements typically used to produce a smartphone, the Royal Society of Chemistry says that 11 are at risk of running out in the next 100 years, as consumers purchase more gadgets. Many of them are also what’s called ‘conflict elements’, as they are mined in areas where fierce battles and child labour are often a routine part of their mining.
That’s why it’s more important than ever that we recycle our old mobile phones and other electronic items so that they can either be refurbished and resold, or the materials they contain can be extracted and reused.
The RSC is asking policymakers, businesses, and retailers to do more to educate consumers to recycle their old gadgets and make it easier for them to do so. They think new design standards would also help. The ultimate aim is to create a circular economy. But in the meantime, it’s up to us.
If we want these elements to be available to create new gadgets in the future, and so we can increase the use of green energy through manufacturing more solar panels, we should all be reusing and recycling our old mobile phones. If they’re still relatively new, pass them onto a friend, or sell them so that both you and the environment benefit. Even older phones that have cracked screens, broken buttons or don’t charge properly are still valuable.
So do your bit to ensure that we don’t run out of rare metals any time soon by selling your old mobile phone. You can get a quote in minutes and you might be surprised just how much it’s worth. Once you’ve done it, encourage your friends and family to do the same, and help to raise awareness of this important issue.